NEW YORK — As the audience settles in, a woman dressed in mournful black paces slowly along the wall at the back of the stage. She is, we will discover, the great Russian actress Olga Knipper, widow of Anton Chekhov. It is six months after his death, and she is in a St. Petersburg rehearsal room, waiting for the rest of the company.
The play is Guillermo Calderón’s “Neva,” and it is set on Bloody Sunday, 1905, the day scores of peacefully protesting workers were massacred by government forces on their way to the city’s Winter Palace, where they’d sought to deliver a message to the czar. Only two of Olga’s colleagues arrive at rehearsal that afternoon: an actor, Aleko, and an actress, Masha. In the darkened room, the three of them attend to their craft, insulated from the violence unfolding in the streets.
Calderón, a 42-year-old Chilean who grew up under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, directs the Public Theater production of “Neva,” which ArtsEmerson brings to the Paramount Center’s Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre Wednesday through April 7. For Calderón, “the private domestic life of actors” is a natural window onto political turmoil. It’s in the rehearsal room that “actors discuss the life in the theater, and they usually talk about politics, and they gossip, and they talk about their life and about technique and whatever,” he said by phone from Newark, shortly before a 12-hour flight back to Santiago.
“Those moments are the ones in which I guess we discuss our relationship with the reality of the outside, of the real world,” said Calderón, who was an actor before moving into writing and directing. “And we usually wonder, is this of value? Shouldn’t we be doing something else? Shouldn’t we be sort of fighting in the streets with the people who are being killed, so to speak, rather than being here, isolated in this sort of artistic endeavor, which is fine and valuable, but then it comes into question when you put it against the reality of political violence.”
The play, translated by Andrea Thome and named for the Neva River that flows through St. Petersburg, made its English-language premiere at the Public, where its monthlong run ends Sunday. In Boston, the production will be a more intimate experience than in New York: The Paramount’s black box, configured to seat 126, will be less than half the size of the Public’s 275-seat, thrust-stage Anspacher Theater.
Bianca Amato, who won raves last spring as Amanda in the Huntington Theatre Company’s “Private Lives,” plays Olga in “Neva.” The role — with its huge monologues, hairpin turns of tone and emotion, and sudden shifts between reality and artifice — is both delicious and “kind of barbed,” she said.
“It can be kind of painful to look at acting in the way in which it’s presented in this piece,” Amato said recently at the Public. “First of all, it questions the personality of actors, it questions the honesty of actors, it questions the motives of actors, it questions the importance of actors, and it questions, yeah, the validity of what they’re doing. I don’t think it answers any of those questions, and I think that those questions are not to be answered by anybody but oneself, for oneself.”
Calderón’s own answer, clearly, has been to make art rather than revolution. He described “Neva” as a “revenge against a sort of a secretive adolescence,” but a revenge taken only “after many, many years of being psychologically incapable of saying what you really mean.”
“To grow up with a dictatorship, you become very aware of the need of keeping — to not express your ideas. To not repeat outside of your house what you heard at home, the political conversations you heard at home. So when I decided to start writing my own plays, I decided to try to make characters speak their minds,” he said. “And of course, theater, it’s a good place to discuss dictatorship or political violence, but it has of course many limitations. But at least from a personal point of view, it allows me to express my true feelings about growing up in violence.”
Also his feelings about the theater as a guilty pleasure, both for people who work in it and for people who go to see it. “That contradiction between the marvelous possibilities of theater and also its complicated moral, ethical stance in the world — I think that conflict is the one that I like to explore and the one that I like for people to take home,” he said.
The first lines uttered in “Neva” come from Olga, and they belong to Madame Ranevskaya in “The Cherry Orchard,” a role Olga Knipper created. One of the founding members of Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre, she remained with the company for decades after the Russian Revolution, and that was part of what drew Calderón to her.
“She became sort of, I guess, almost a very tragic figure, because she was never able to live an independent, a free life. She was very much manipulated by the state over there,” he said. “She would travel all over, touring Europe, but she would always be accompanied by KGB agents, so she couldn’t sort of mingle with the expatriates or the international artists. So she was very much a symbol of Chekhovian theater, but also a symbol of the state. So that really attracted me because she is, of course, as Chekhov was, ambivalent toward the idea of revolution.”
To Calderón, that made the actress a suitable entry point “to the world of Chekhov and into the world of failed and violent revolutions.” Amato sees, in the world he renders in “Neva,” a blending of cultures.
“Guillermo was talking about the Russian tendency — and Chekhovian, certainly — to have one’s emotions very much on the surface and to be able to sort of veer between laughter and tears in a matter of seconds, to have real facility of moving between emotions, and that there’s nothing strange about that in the culture, that it’s actually something to be proud of — as opposed to the English reserve or whatever the case may be,” Amato said.
“But what I noticed when I first read the script and when we started doing this work,” she said, “was I felt that there was definitely a part of Guillermo’s Chilean heritage in the piece as well: that there was a flamboyance to the emotions that was a sort of combination of a Russian heritage and another heritage altogether.”
Amato’s own heritage is South African. The nation was a democracy by the time she studied drama at the University of Cape Town. But the actress, who is white, grew up under apartheid, and her parents were involved in protest theater at the Space Theatre in Cape Town and in East London, where she was born. The actors in her father’s company were black, and its audiences were sometimes mixed.
“And so I grew up with this understanding that theater was very important in terms of fighting the status quo,” she said. “My dad would direct things that would be banned, and actors would be arrested. Even though it reached a small audience, it was a vital part of artistic people expressing their need for change.”
In her mind, the question of acting’s importance is settled.
“My part is to do this,” Amato said. “This is the conundrum of the human condition. We’re not all supposed to be out there fighting for human rights in a sort of front-and-center fashion. We certainly can all do our bit. But I feel like this is my bit: to tell stories.”